Hampden is changing. Falkenhan's Hardware, not so much.
The store at the corner of Chestnut Avenue and West 34th Street has been a hardware store in various incarnations since the late 1800s. It's an old-fashioned bastion in a gentrifying neighborhood, filled with 5,000 to 6,000 items — faucet stems, WD40, weather stripping, tools, ice melt, snow shovels, electrical wiring, sink traps, piping, 15-foot extension cords, chainsaw bar lubricant, full-face grinding shields, wood screws, mason jars and canning supplies.
For the holidays, the store carries tree stands and old-style strings of Christmas lights.
"I don't like the LED ones," said longtime owner Debbie Falkenhan, whose father, Frank, owned the store before she did. "They don't look Christmasey."
The only obvious signs of modernity in Falkenhan's cluttered office, located behind the cluttered counter, are her laptop computer and a video surveillance monitor.
Falkenhan, 58, was born and raised in Hampden, where she still lives. She says "Hon" and "Darling." She is proud of her independent hardware store, one of the few in the area that perseveres in a world of big-box Walmarts and Lowe's home improvement stores.
"I buy what I want," she said. "I still have metal roller skate brackets."
The newest item in the store these days, located on a shelf just inside the front door, is a trophy that Falkenhan won earlier this month as the Hampden Village Merchants Association's 2015 Merchant of the Year.
"Falkenhan's and Debbie have been the heart of the community for years," said Benn Ray, president of the association. "She's a bridge between old Hampden and new Hampden. Her hardware store serves a vital need in the neighborhood. She's involved in just about every charitable event I can think of in the neighborhood. She goes to all the merchants' and community meetings. When I think of the finest in Hampden, I think of Debbie Falkenhan."
Falkenhan said she found a home for the trophy on the shelf by the door, "so people can see it. I can't put it on the counter. I have no room."
She doesn't know who nominated her for the award. She is honored to have won, but seems slightly embarrassed, saying she would rather work in the background to support Hampden, rather than being a public face of the business community.
"I like the behind the scenes stuff," she said. "I don't like the out-there stuff. I don't believe in blowing your own horn. I am just another business owner in Hampden who is trying to survive."
Rich in loyalty
The hardware store at 701 Chestnut has been drawing customers since long before Debbie Falkenhan took it over. It started as Towson Hardware (the original owner's last name) in 1890 and has had several ownership and name changes through the years. It was Benson Hardware in 1968, when Frank Falkenhan, a plumber, bought the business. He sold it in 1988 to Ken and Earl Klock and it was Klock's Hardware until it closed in 1997.
Debbie Falkenhan was working at New System Bakery nearby when her father asked her to take over the store. She has owned it since 1998 and has doubled its size by expanding it to the basement, where the entrance now is. She is technically an employee of the corporation that owns it, and has four other employees, two full-time.
Although she has been working since she was 14, Falkenhan had no experience in running a business when she took over the store. "It was a learning experience," she said.
She pours back into the store any money it makes. "The bills get paid," she said, "The employees get paid. There usually isn't a whole lot left over."
But she is rich in customer loyalty and neighborhood recognition. About 800 people pass through the store each week, she said, most but not all from the Hampden area. In the past two weeks, a West Baltimore woman came in looking for a specific kind of faucet stem. She was referred by her local plumbing supply store, Falkenhan said. And earlier this month, a man came from Monkton, looking for bronze weather stripping, Falkenhan said.
On Saturday, Dec. 19, several customers were from outside the area. Bob Davis, of Parkton, was helping his brother-in-law, Richard Wies, who recently opened a new store nearby, Jerome Burke and Company, which sells vintage automobile memorabilia and collectibles. Davis came to Falkenhan's at Wies' suggestion to buy wall plugs.
"He told me all about it. He said, 'You'll love the place.'"
Also there, looking for a level, was Cyprienne London, who recenly moved to Rolden with her husband. Clerk Steven Weiner quickly found her one upstairs. But Weiner couldn't help her with another request, for ping pong paddles.
London was not discouraged. "I think it's great," she said of the store. "You always get immediate attention when you walk in, which is nice."
Other independent hardware stores in this area send business Flkenhan's way, and vice versa, she said, singling out Schneider's Hardware Store in Roland Park, ACE Hardware in Waverly, Sirkis Paint & Hardware in Hampden and Belle Paint & Hardware in Bolton Hill.
"Anything to keep (customers) from going to Home Depot or Lowe's," she said. "I'll always recommend a local store over a box store."
Falkenhan said she was worried about plans by Walmart and Lowe's, since scrapped, to open stores in 25th Street Station, a proposed shopping center in Remington that caused great debate among residents and community leaders locally in the past few years, but never got off the ground. Lowe's pulled out early on, and much of the fight over Walmart focused on whether it would bring local jobs to the area and whether it would hurt independent hardware stores and other small businesses.
Towson resident Daniela Useli, who moved from Italy for her husband's research job at the National Institutes of Health and in 2013 opened a well-received restaurant in Hampden, now is expanding on The Avenue.
"People would say, 'What are you going to do about Lowe's?'" Falkenhan said. "I said, 'It's not what I'm going to do. It's what you're going to do. If you continue to shop [at big-box stores], it's going to be harder for me to stay in business.' Fortunately, I don't have to deal with that," since the planned development has died.
Cultivating an image
Falkenhan believes her store's appeal is that it has remained true to its nature as a service-oriented neighborhood store, where the staff still cuts and threads pipe and sells it by the foot, makes duplicate keys, does custom cuts for glass and plexiglass, and sells nails individually, not just in packages.
Although she is glad to see her once blue-collar business district thriving with boutique stores and restaurants, she prefers to keep Falkenhan's old-time neighborhood vibe.
"If you need two nails, you can come in and buy two nails," she said. "That's what people expect, and you want to keep the customers happy. They like the feel of the old-fashioned store."
When parents from out of town come in to help their children in college get settled, they often remark that they had a store like Falkenhan's in their home towns, Falkenhan said. And she usually has the goods to deliver, she added.
"I'm probably able to fulfill the requests of 90 percent of the people who come in here, whether I have it or I have to order it. If it's out of stock, a lot of people will wait until I get it back in. That's loyalty from my customers, which I really appreciate it, because if I didn't have that loyalty, I wouldn't be in business."
But Clark Doherty, who has worked there for about 11 years, said it's not just the store's reputation that draws customers. To a large extent, he said, it's Falkenhan herself.
"In a run of 10 (customers), about five of them are looking for Deb," said Doherty, 32, of Charles Village. "It was frustrating at first because I do have the knowledge that [customers] need."
They also used to come to see Falkenhan's cat, Cop Car, who died in 2013 at age 12. His ashes now sit in a box in Falkenhan's office.
Falkenhan is well-known in her own right as a benefactor in Hampden. She contributes financially to the Kiwanis Club's annual Christmas party at the Roosevelt Recreation Center in Hampden, helps sponsor the Greenmount School's annual fundraiser, supports youth sports teams at Roosevelt Park, is on the board of the Hampden Family Center, helps support the food pantry at Hampden United Methodist Church, and was a marshal in this year's Hampden Mayor's Christmas Parade, pulling the fundraising wagon in the parade earlier this month.
She also invites Santa Claus to the store each year, as well as local oyster shucker Nick Shulman and children from the Greenmount School, who sold hot dogs outside Falkenhan's on Dec. 19 as an annual school fundraiser.
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As a business owner in the 700 block of West 34th Street, known worldwide as the Miracle on 34th Street for its light displays and decorations, Falkenhan gets into the holiday spirit with her own decorations, including a creche, a snowman, a Santa and a toilet seat with pictures of crabs on it, outside the store, as well as pictures of polar bears in the windows.
She also usually comes to 34th Street for one of the world's biggest block parties on New Years Eve, where her neighbor, resident Bob Hosier, dons a diaper and poses for photos with the crowds as Baby New Year.
As busy as she is, Falkenhan finds time for herself. Although she tries to attend all of the merchants' association and Hampden Community Council meetings, she doesn't always make it to the monthly community council meetings on Monday nights, because she plays bingo with friends in Arbutus.
This holiday season, she plans to spend a few days in Ocean City.